Movie Review: My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)

Movie Review: My Neighbors the Yamadas

March 1, 2005

One of the great joys of watching an Isao Takahata movie is waiting to see what new visual style you will be presented with next. You always expect a new roll of the dice. My Neighbors the Yamadas may be his greatest surprise of them all. It is a mastery of Japanese zen animation: visually sweeping and grand while being nothing at all. This is among the most daring of all animated movies. It also happens to be screamingly funny.

Yamadas is an adaptation of a popular newspaper gag strip in Japan, one of those crudely-drawn comics that everyone swears they could do in their sleep if they really, really wanted to. This may seem like an unusual subject for the naturalist master who gave us Grave of the Fireflies and Omohide Poro Poro, but often, in the midst of all the sheer emotional beauty of his movies, his keen sense of humor can be overlooked. But make no mistake, Takahata can make you laugh as easily as he can make you cry; after this movie, you'll believe he could completely master any genre at will.

The movie centers on a modern Japanese family: father Takashi, mother Matsuko, grandmother Shige, son Noboru, and daughter Nonoko. For the better part of two hours, we are taken through a roller coaster of funny gags, humorous jabs, and the occasional slapstick.

When it comes to adapting comic strips to the screen, the original work is typically shoehorned into a full-length plot, complete with story arc. This almost never works because gag strips are designed for quick, choppy consumption. It's much like, say, taking the Marx Brothers and handcuffing them to some stuffy plot. Thank goodness that never happened, right?

Takahata finally did what everyone should have done long ago: he keeps the comic strip as a comic strip. His movie is a glorious collection of routines and vignettes. I'm watching this, and within sixty seconds, I'm wondering out loud, "Why couldn't the Peanuts movies be like this?" I wish I had the chance to grab a studio executive by the arm, show this film and say, "See? This is how Fat Albert should have been made!" Yamadas is like reading through your favorite Calvin and Hobbes books.

The early episode where Nonoko gets left at the mall is full of wisecracks. A number of bits involve family members manipulating each other (it seems whoever leaves the table first gets bagged as the gopher). There's a part involving the grandma and a wayward ball that's always hilarious. The sparring between the parents never gets old. And there's a scene where Takashi endlessly pesters his wife that leaves me in stitches.

The funniest part of the movie, and I think this is a bona-fide classic that should be taught in schools, is the battle over the remote. The father wants to watch the baseball game, but the mother's looking forward to the afternoon movie. She casually picks up the remote, and just before she zaps the TV, Takashi's blocking the set with his paper. So she tries to bounce the signal off the walls, and he just moves to block it again. Within seconds, they're in a ridiculous mock sword fight, complete with all the silly ballet poses.

Says Nonoko, "Aw, now we can't see the TV." Shige replies, "This is much more fun."

The remote control fight does end, and I wouldn't dare give it away, but you'll laugh your head off. The only other time I cheer as loudly is when I'm watching Star Wars and Greedo is getting shot under the table. Maybe that's me; I can't bear to live in a world where Greedo shoots first. It's just wrong.

The look of Yamadas is absolutely stunning, quite unlike anything ever seen. The look of the original comic strip is preserved, and matched with a marvelous watercolor style, splashed fast and loose. This kind of visual effect couldn't be achieved on traditional cells, so the entire movie was drawn and painted on computers; the first for Studio Ghibli. Note that computers are used to aid the animation, not completely take over as is the case in America.

Many people will look at the screen and feel they are being cheated because there's "nothing up there." This is just ignorance. Taking cues from the 1960's segments in Omohide Poro Poro, Takahata has the shots drawn with spare brushstrokes, almost minimalist. Again, it's in keeping with the source material, but there's something else at play. Over the past decade, he has become increasingly inspired by the great artistic traditions of Japan's rich past. This became one of the grand themes of Pom Poko, and in My Neighbors the Yamadas the process has become completely absorbed.

The composition of the shots are based upon Japanese watercolors, based on the Eastern idea of zen and negative space. It invokes the spirit of the great haiku poets; I was pleasantly surprised to actually see written haikus appear on the screen as denouement to key scenes. It fits perfectly.

This brings me to another of Takahata's great talents: his many stylistic shifts. The pacing of the movie shifts and swerves about, introducing short asides (the tango number, for instance), and jumps into the third dimension. There are two spectacular montages that bookend the picture, when the roller coaster just flies off the rails and everything just flies. The beginning montage flashes back to Takashi's and Matsuko's wedding, where an elderly woman's advice for their future is played out as a series of symbolic reenactments. Whoever thought up the connection between marriage and a bobsled team is a genius, and whoever thought to have that bobsled skid across the wedding cake is even crazier.

We are literally taken through famous paintings, including Hokusai's Tsunami; we watch different cultures' take on The Stork (the children are born from a beach and a bamboo stalk, respectively); we see pirate battles; sharks attack a raft only to watch a shark attack on TV; we see an underwater voyage straight out an illustrated children's book; and we the grandmother towing a giant slug with, of all things, a tricycle.

The ending montage revolves around a karaoke rendering of "Que Sera Sera," performed by voice actors who really sing like normal people (you know what I mean), leading to a spectacular song-and-dance complete with umbrellas, balloons, and fireworks. It's an animated Abbey Road.

And, true to form, this wouldn't be a Takahata movie without forays into pathos. These don't happen too often, but the sadder, reflective moments arrive in spots, as profound as always. It's the sort of skill one only learns after spending years absorbing Yasujiro Ozu and Charlie Chaplin (both of whom are quoted). There is also one segment where Yamadas becomes dead serious, and veers from tension to comedy to tragedy; the Aha music video, 1960s pop culture and Kurosawa's Ikiru in in ten minutes or your money back.

I couldn't finish this essay without mentioning the wondrous, magnificent music in this picture. Akiko Yano, a pop singer, provides music and vocals to a number of tunes that have all the rhythm and bounce of Burt Bacharach. It's absolutely terrific, just like all the great Ghibli music you can never get out of your head. Not that this is a bad thing. If you have any warm blood in you, you'll never want this picture completely out of your head.

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